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Seeking the cinematic Christ: London group examines film with Anabaptist eyes

   
 


Vic Thiessen, representing Mennonite Mission Network and MC Canada Witness as director of the London Mennonite Centre, leads film discussion groups in examining modern movies from an Anabaptist perspective.

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Feb 10, 2005
-by Ryan Miller

London — As the film industry prepares for the Feb. 27 Academy Awards, some religious groups are suggesting that Hollywood has nothing to offer the faithful. But Vic Thiessen, executive director of the London Mennonite Centre, believes that the movie medium’s tremendous power to influence lives, thoughts and even beliefs makes film-watching vital to understand the modern world, even if the messages do not always fit into Christian theology.

Paraphrasing author Gareth Higgins, Thiessen said, “Films are the sermons of our time. They speak to the existential condition of our time and the spiritual condition of our souls. They help us to think about God and talk about God. It’s theology for the masses.”

For five years, Thiessen (Holyrood Mennonite Church, Edmonton), who represents Mennonite Church Canada Witness and its partner Mennonite Mission Network in London, has hosted a weekly movie night featuring a flick followed by a conversation – a tradition he started while he lived in Edmonton. He said nearly every discussion turns theological, regardless of the movie.

“Some of the people who have attended my movie nights have seen it as the place where most of their theological interaction and learning takes place – more than in church. For others, it restored their belief in a community of faith and brought them back into the church,” Thiessen said.

“Many of our film nights have focused on Anabaptist theological themes like community – indeed, some of my film night groups have been a real community to those who attended – and like peace and justice,” he continued. “Most of the best film nights happened because people were willing to be open and to share whatever they were thinking, including some very painful parts of their lives.”

Karen Cornies, now working for Emmanuel Bible College in Kitchener, Ontario, spent time at movie nights with Thiessen in Edmonton. Cornies said the group gave her freedom to openly process issues of faith, peace and justice as they related to the wider world – a discussion she was not experiencing at her church and one she said is important as Anabaptists examine their roles in society.

“For our theology to be anywhere near relevant we actually need to be aware of the world in which we live. We are part of it and hopefully also able to critique it,” Cornies said. “Even when we watch movies that we don’t agree with … we can gain empathy for people in those situations. It’s a mistake to say that every movie that you see that has a different opinion than mine or yours is wrong. It’s telling a story.”

While some Christians have responded to the modern film culture by shutting out images they can not support, Thiessen said those same films some may find objectionable can be tools for teaching and learning about the world.

Cornies agreed. “I think about the parables Jesus told that allowed us to learn and be changed. Film also is telling a story,” she continued. “You can look at the things we are disconnected from, but you can also look at the connection, which I think sometimes gets lost in the ‘us versus them’ agenda.”

Thiessen believes Christians must enter into a dialogue with films, using them to learn about the issues and values dominant in society without necessarily accepting them.

“If the church is to have anything to say to our culture, it is essential that it learn how to dialogue with film. … While I would not recommend (James) Bond films to any discerning Anabaptist, my daughter and I have had some amazing discussions after watching them,” Thiessen said. “That's the secret for me: people love watching films, and many love watching violent action films, so instead of just condemning this, I make use of it to draw people into discussions about violence, about the portrayal of women and sex, etc.”

Some films, too, can correspond with Anabaptist ideals without being overtly religious. Thiessen said “Magnolia” and “American Beauty” “reveal the loneliness and brokenness all around us and in us and show us the power of, and need for, community.”

“Chocolat” parallels the historical Anabaptist theme of standing in the margins, encouraging the broader church and society to transform itself. And many films, including “Missing,” “The China Syndrome,” “Under Fire” and “The Killing Fields,” seek, as Christ did, to expose abuses of power in the world.

But Thiessen said the myth of redemptive violence overwhelms most of today’s cinema. Even recent Academy Award winners like “Gladiator” and “Unforgiven,” which try not to glorify killing, end with a clearly redemptive use of violence.

“People seem to assume that violence is the only way to save the town or the country. All they need is a hero to come in with both guns blazing to save the day,” Thiessen said. “I would like to suggest that this is one of the worst uses of the film medium – that, in fact, film bears a large responsibility for perpetuating this myth, making life that much harder for Anabaptists who believe that this myth is completely counter to the gospel of Jesus.

“Contrast … the savior of all these hero films, with Jesus who was emptied, humbled, dishonored, mocked, dealt with unjustly by both the crowd and the system, but did not respond with violence. Instead, he showed us a new way to respond to the oppression of violence through community and dialogue, through loving our enemy, through forgiveness, through nonviolently challenging the oppressive powers around him.”

Thiessen said films that deal honestly with violence are scarce, mentioning “The Mission,” “Romero,” “Gandhi” and “In the Bedroom” as examples. The latter, while containing what Thiessen called the usual elements of films where aggressive revenge seems the only way out, avoids portraying violent acts as positive and the ending certainly is not redemptive.

Thiessen was 7 years old when he saw his first film: “The Sword in the Stone,” which retold the story of King Arthur in animated form. He visited the land of legends first as a teenage backpacker in 1975 and several times since. Eventually, encouraged by a daughter afflicted with her father’s love of medieval myth, he applied for his current position at London Mennonite Centre with Mennonite Church Canada Witness and Mennonite Mission Network.

“So I am here today because of the first film I ever watched, back in 1963,” Thiessen said. “Actually, I do believe that ultimately it was God and not ‘The Sword in the Stone’ that led me to the London Mennonite Centre, but films played a huge role.”

Start your own film discussion group. See the sidebar below: "Questions for your own Anabaptist film night," for ways to begin discussion. For more movie talk from a Mennonite perspective, see Media Matters at the Third Way Café Web site.


Questions for your own Anabaptist film night

Interested in hosting your own film night? Consider these questions, provided by Vic Thiessen, representing Mennonite Church Canada Witness and Mennonite Mission Network at the London Mennonite Centre, as ways to start a discussion:

  1. What is your first response to the film? What struck you, touched you, spoke to you?
  2. Which characters changed in the film? How and why did they change?
  3. Which character was the most important for you? Why? Or which character did you identify with the most? Why?
  4. What did you learn about yourself in watching this film or through the character in the previous question (i.e., how did this film help you to better understand yourself)?
  5. What did the film say to you about people, about society, about the world (i.e., how did this film help you to better understand the people around you)?
  6. What kind of symbols did you see in the film?
  7. Do you think the film had a particular message? If so, talk about it.
  8. Did the use of colors or sets or the cinematography strike you? If so, what did these visual effects contribute to the film?
  9. Comment on the acting in the film. Were any performances particularly impressive? Why?
  10. Discuss the use of music in the film.
  11. Do you have any comments about the directing of the film, the writing?
  12. Were there any overtly religious themes in the film? If so, what did you think about them?
  13. How did the film affect your thinking about God, about other theological ideas?
  14. What does your understanding of God and theology have to say to the characters and narrative of the film?
  15. How does your theology interact with the responses of viewers to the film?

Vic Thiessen